The 2 Most Important Words for a Product Manager

January 27, 2011

I’ve been reading the “42 Rules of Product Management” recently which is an excellent book consisting of articles contributed by a number of well-respected product management professionals.  My only problem with this book is that I can’t remember 42 of anything for very long.   So with this in mind, I propose the 2 most important words for a product manager to live by — “Why” and “No”.

“Why”

You’re siting with a customer and they describe a feature, perhaps one that seems completely inconsistent with your product plans.  You can dismiss this idea or even dismiss the customer.  But you first need to know Why they thought this idea was important.   Time is precious to customers also, so they are unlikely to waste their time describing something they want unless it is important.  So ask them “Why is this important”? and make sure you listen (and understand) what they are saying.

Or perhaps you’re looking at your visitor count, promotion results, and sales numbers for your storefront during the last quarter.  The results in February are stronger than expected, especially since you didn’t run any special promotions that month.  You need to know “why this happened.”   Perhaps your promotions are not compelling (so it doesn’t matter if you ran any or not), perhaps your email newsletters are being interpreted as SPAM.  Perhaps your products are most interesting to Valentine’s Day shoppers.   You can’t afford to guess — so you need to know “Why”.

“No”

As you listen to more and more of your customers (and prospects), one thing will become very clear — you can’t please every one of them every time.  That’s why the “80/20” rule exists in the first place.  So you have three choices when a customer asks for something that you have no intention of providing them:

  1. String them along — promise them that you’ll look at it “soon” or in the “next release”.  But after a couple of promises like this, your credibility with this customer will be gone and they won’t want to talk to you in the future.
  2. Lie to them — Promise them that you’ll include their feature and then fail to do so.  Of course, this also ruins your credibility with this customer and they will not trust you in the future.
  3. Tell them “no” — Tell them the truth; that there is not enough demand for their feature from other customers.  They may object initially, but eventually they will appreciate your honesty, because it gives them options.   They can appeal to your management, provide additional information to justify their request, provide funding for you to do it as a “customization”, coordinate requests for this feature with other  customers, or decide to live without it.

Nobody said it was easy to tell a very important, strategic customer “no” — but you must have the courage to do what is right — for the benefit of your customers, your product, your company, and your team.

An Example:

Here’s what happened to me a while ago with a large automobile company.  This company had been using our enterprise software for quite a while in a test environment and always provided good feedback — lists and lists of highly detailed enhancement requests.  But they never made much progress in deploying our software in production, so it was hard to prioritize their enhancement requests over those from other production customers. One of their enhancement requests was “allow longer passwords”.  It had a high priority, but so did many of their other requests.   And since our product was built around a 8-character password — we didn’t see any point to expending the effort to change this.  In essence, we said “no”.

One day during a visit to their facility, we discussed their very long list of enhancements.  When the discussion reached the “longer password” item, their IT Manager explained that all of their other corporate systems required a password of 10 characters — so they could not even suggest adoption of our software because it didn’t meet their security guidelines.  Once we understood the “why” of their enhancement request, it became a high priority for us and the very next revision of our software allowed passwords of up to 16 characters.   Our customer deployed our software almost immediately and used it successfully in their business for quite a few years.  And in case you were wondering, they were never able to provide a written explanation of why they needed a longer password, because their internal security policies didn’t allow them to disclose this type of information in writing to anyone — for fear of compromising their other systems.

The Bottom Line

Learn to always ask “why” and be prepared to say “no” when it is appropriate.  But also be aware that a “no” can become a “yes” once you learn enough to understand “why”.


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